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Art Project Rises From The Ashes Of Colorado's Worst Wildfire, Again

Photographer Tim O'Hara is one of the founders of the Ashes to Art project.
Stacy Nick
Photographer Tim O'Hara is one of the founders of the Ashes to Art project.

In 2012, the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins burned more than 87,000 acres. At the time it was the state’s largest wildfire, destroying 259 homes and claiming one life. Eight years later, the Cameron Peak Fire burned more than twice as much land, becoming the largest in Colorado history. During both events, one local program sifted through the ashes to create art and help firefighters.

Tim O’Hara has been a commercial photographer in Colorado for years, a career spent capturing images of beauty. But when the High Park Fire began practically in his own backyard, O’Hara and his colleague, photo stylist Lori Joseph, witnessed images that were hard to look at.

We had a front row seat for the fire,” O’Hara said. “So, we'd go out during breaks and we'd look and she goes, we have to do something about that. And I said, ‘We can't do anything about it, we're not firefighters.’ She says, ‘No, no, after it's over, we have to come up with something to make good of the bad.’”

Each of the artworks being auctioned off will feature ash or charred branches from the Cameron Peak Fire.
Courtesy Tim O'Hara
Each of the artworks being auctioned off will feature ash or charred branches from the Cameron Peak Fire.

To Joseph, that something good came directly from the fire itself.

“I thought, ‘Well, what could we use?’” she said. “And the charcoal seemed to be the best thing because it was so readily available.”

And that’s how the Ashes to Art project came to be.

Since it was the largest fire in Colorado's history, we felt it was appropriate to have artists all over the country produce art with the ash from the fire and auction it off and donate it to the Poudre Canyon Fire Department,” O’Hara said.

They put the entire project together in just four weeks and raised more than $16,000 for the department. Later, they published a book featuring photos of all the artwork.

Flash forward to 2020. After the Cameron Peak Fire raged through Northern Colorado for nearly four months, the two decided to resurrect the project. But this time — just like the fire itself — O’Hara says they went much bigger.

We had like 62 likes on our Facebook page back in 2012,” he said. “We have 6,000 now. And Bidding for Good, where our auction is being held, they had 14,000 members on there. Now they have 14 million. So we have no idea what it's going to be this year. We hope it blows up.”

The auction, which benefits the Poudre and Rist Canyon volunteer fire departments, will feature donated art from every state in the country, as well as one piece from Great Britain. That willingness to help a community that’s not your own, isn’t surprising to Joseph, who is based out of Maryland.

Some of these people have never traveled to Colorado,” she said. “Some of them will never know a fire in their life. But the idea that they know that this is a good project to give to and to create for, it's not only benefiting the firefighters long term, but it's also benefiting the people who are participating in the process. It's lifting them up. It's lifting everybody up.”

And the artists have gotten creative with how they use the ashes.

“When we did it the first time, we suspected we were probably going to get 60 charcoal drawings because that's what you think,” O’Hara said. “We have a custom-made knife that has charcoal in the handle. We have pottery that has ash in the glaze. We have a handmade wooden bowl that's been etched and they put ash inside the etchings and sealed it. It's just amazing what people came up with.”

When they first decided to do the project, they never imagined that they’d be doing it a second time.

“You hope you don't make it an annual thing,” O’Hara said. “But when you have fires that burn through two snowstorms and go out on Dec. 3 — we didn’t have fires in December in Colorado, ever. It's a year-round thing now. It's just more and more strains on (resources). I mean, it’s $180 million to fight the Cameron Peak Fire. That was only one of those fires in Colorado. So, we're barely scratching the surface but we’re helping out the people that are volunteering.”

And Joseph says the idea that bad things can happen anywhere and everywhere was particularly brought home by the pandemic.

“If everybody is a little bit more aware of their surroundings, (they can) become better stewards of the land — whether you're in a city and an apartment or living in the country,” she said.

Until then, O’Hara and Joseph say knowing that summer wildfires will return, and so will the need for help, the Ashes to Art project may just rise up again.

The Ashes to Art auction runs from May 10 to May 15 on the site Bidding for Good.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.